The Virtual Campaign: or, Dead Frogs and the Athelred Conspiracy
The atmosphere of the referendum has noticeably changed. An increasingly paradoxical quality has emerged, probably because Better Together and the Unionist parties have coalesced closer and closer together in a kind of defensive, closed, belligerent, indistinguishable, blanket Unionism; just as the Coalition Government is drifting uneasily apart under the pressure of the rise of UKIP, David Cameron’s grim, rightward, Eurosceptic drift in his new Cabinet (which is currently being heavily ‘spun’ as if demonstrating his heroic status as the natural heir to the Suffragettes) and the looming 2015 general election. Nick Clegg suddenly finds a Human Rights argument to divide him from Conservatism in a doomed attempt to avoid the collapse of the LibDem vote, while Danny Alexander suddenly produces a bizarre argument, quite exceptional for its obtuse perversity (or its sheer gall); he proposes to abandon the ‘Spare Room Subsidy’: or not, as he probably can’t actually do it in the Coalition; so it is irrelevant. Alexander’s own father, as chairman of Lochaber Housing Association, long ago drew attention to the specific flaws in the policy it has taken so long for Alexander Jnr., to discover now for the first time (Guardian, 10th November, 2013). It seems that the wrong Alexander was chosen for high office.
Incomprehensibly in the middle of this confusion, the Labour Party chooses to move ever closer to the Conservatives on the policy of Austerity and Welfare Cuts.
Meanwhile, in the referendum debate this ‘uniform’ (sic) brand of Unionism increasingly presents itself to the Scottish public as angry, bitter and resentful. Unionism has come to rely on an argument informed almost solely by accusation and finger-pointing, and its belligerence slowly creeps towards personal abuse, often wrapped in deflecting accusations of being abused by Yes supporters (the ‘cybernat-spin’ gambit); and conducted in an atmosphere of sustained, high-pitch, near hysteria. The accusations, of course, may be an exercise in obfuscation; directing attention away from the reasons for making them.
‘Better Together’ nevertheless, is a species rarely found out in the real world, participating in ordinary public discourse in our communities (a sight as rare as hens-teeth); but when induced to break-cover, its supporters seem permanently and intolerantly angry. The standard debate in the mainstream media skews the issue towards Unionists – apparently a timid, beleaguered minority – and their swelling torrent of claims of personal abuse, usually in social media; but the mainstream television and radio broadcasters at least recognise that this resort to gratuitous abuse applies to both sides in the debate (although not covering the abuse of the Yes side as assiduously, in part because Yes supporters do not resort to hysteria with the same alacrity, nor are they able to generate the media storm of outraged righteousness that their opponents can rely on from a biased pro-Better-Together press); as if by equalising blame, broadcast media can somehow legitimise the gross Unionist exaggeration.
There is no doubt that respectable standards of conduct and fair debate are not typically followed (and certainly not followed closely) on social media. This is not peculiar to politics or the referendum; indeed there appears to be nothing exceptional about the treatment of the referendum, in this respect, on social media. If you are looking for appalling remarks or gratuitous insults directed at almost anyone, famous or obscure, on any and every subject, you will surely find them on social media.
One reason for this appalling standard of dialogue is that anonymity is not merely allowed on social media but implicitly encouraged; thus providing a free invitation to the craven, malicious, spineless, or devious and scheming the freedom to abuse whomsoever they wish, under a convenient cloak of anonymity; an invitation that is accepted and wholeheartedly embraced out there in the ethereal, electronic cloud of hidden servers; and applied on an industrial scale. Sadly mainstream broadcast media is notably guilty of indulging this miscreant behaviour, including the BBC encouraging the cloak of anonymity by reading out anonymous texts or Tweets without raising any comment on the authenticity of such doubtful sources.
Abuse on social media is clearly appalling behaviour, but Unionist selectivity of such abuse directed solely against their supporters, typically carries the implicit suggestion that this activity is somehow peculiar to Yes supporters (and suggestive of sinister undertones), or at least far more prevalent among Better Togethers’ opponents than their supporters. This implication is both cynical and hypocritical. The cynicism arises from that fact that so many of the most irate Better Together supporters are older and may be unfamiliar with social media in all its raw vulgarity (more like a street-scene from 17th century London, complete with virtual-stocks); and are easily led to believe that this kind of venom is peculiarly directed at Better Together supporters.
More obviously and for the rest of us, it should not require to be stated that because of the nature of the various social media and because so many contributors on social media are anonymous, it is very often not possible to know whether any single contributor who makes an abusive comment is either a Yes supporter or a Unionist. It is quite obvious that it is as easy for a contributor to present him or herself as being on either side of the argument as it is for any anonymous (or disguised) source to hurl outrageous abuse. Just because someone claims to be pro-independence and traduces a Unionist, does not mean the source is actually pro-independence. Indeed the least reflection on British politics, tabloids, phone-hacking, or the average kind of debate on any animated phone-in, would rather suggest that only the naive or credulous would assume that any anonymous source should actually be assumed to represent the side he or she claims to support. It is the norm in phone-ins (to take the lowest-tech example) for someone who calls himself, let us say, ‘Athelred’ (my apologies to all innocent Athelreds), to claim to be a lifelong supporter of idea-X, and then spend his whole call deriding, abusing and insulting everything idea-X stands-for; either skilfully and subtly, or as often, incompetently. Think about it. Think about the implications.
At the same time, outside the TV studio and the mainstream press, Unionism is most strikingly to be observed in its almost complete absence from the public debate. It is said that the Yes campaign is more effective in the social media, but the more significant fact is that Better Together’s activity is almost exclusively a virtual campaign: a battle fought out with the aid, and virtually only the aid, of such usual-suspects as the Daily Mail, or the Daily Telegraph; a daily-dose of anti-Yes propaganda; or it is closeted far from direct public intervention, to conduct its version of ‘debate’ in the breathless studios of BBC or STV.
Indeed it is quite extraordinary how easily the Scottish Labour Party in particular has slipped into a mode of debate that allows it to find common ground with the Unionist rhetoric of the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail. Part of the reason for this extraordinary and even unnoticed turn of events, is that in pursuit of the ‘centre-ground’, and concentration on the metropolitan focus-group, the Unionist political parties no longer actually represent strong grass-roots constituencies of supporters in Scottish communities, full of committed activists. While the Labour Party has deserted the grass-roots (no Westminster majority there, but you can safely take them for granted, as Labour has done for multiple decades) for the seductive power or enchantment of ‘Office in Westminster’: back home, Labour’s reliable supporters, there through thick-and-thin, have either slowly died of old age, or in tired resignation; or if still alive they have given up hope altogether and live permanently on the edge of despair – their last dregs of faith now improbably resting on the political and social aspirations of Ed Milliband, which are of course quite transparently directed at the concerns, interests and needs of London and the Home Counties; while back in urban Scotland the vote of despairing Labour is now a mere reflex. Galvani in the 18th century could elicit the same response in a dead frog, with a wire and an electric charge.
In Scotland this enfeeblement strikes particularly at Labour, which can no longer be said to be a great, or even authentic, ‘grass-roots’ movement; still less one that can by any stretch of a deluded imagination be said to reach or incorporate the poor or dispossessed that it claimed to represent when it was a party of substance and conviction. How many ordinary people from the poorer communities in Scotland, and who live in these constituencies, on whom the Labour Party disproportionately depends for its support and votes, can be identified as being well represented directly at the highest levels of the party, or even the Shadow Cabinet?
The Unionist political parties have been found-out on the ‘door-step’ during this campaign, because there is no “campaign”; they are so bereft of real community activism, real presence, that they cannot mount a genuine grass-roots national campaign throughout Scotland any more. When Johann Lamont speaks of the need for a “conversation” on a policy issue (notice that she never actually has a policy, just a proposed ‘conversation’), I often wondered who this conversation was going to include? Then I realised what “conversation” must actually mean in this context; it must mean a broadcast interview with Johann Lamont, presumably after she has found out the London line, and established the appropriate words, carefully reconciled with her Union.
I do not discuss here the Conservative or LibDem campaign capacity, only because I am not sure whether there is one; whether they actually exist outside virtual space at all. In any case, who would notice? Thus it is easier for all Unionists simply to be angry and remain detached from the action; where it is easier to accuse the opposition of villainy than to think, to finger-point instead of rebut; to dismiss the debate rather than engage in it; and to live in a permanent virtual-world of trolls and enemies; a fantasy nightmare dreamt up by hard-nosed spin-doctors to frighten the public. This is Unionist politics in Scotland today.